A Famous Tate sales associate shows a BAO customer around the laundry section.

By Andy Kriege, YSN

Got an appointment? You can now add appliance sales associate to the list that includes your doctor, your barber, your accountant and your dog groomer.

The COVID-19 crisis has inspired many members to think outside the box when it comes to customers visiting the showroom. From curbside pickup to driveway delivery, dealers are continuing to find new ways to work with customers safely and effectively.

Another option — having customers come in at a specific time, with a designated sales associate scheduled to work exclusively with them — is proving to be a win-win for shoppers and retailers alike. Previously practiced by a select few, the trend toward by appointment only (BAO) is now spreading to appliance, furniture and mattress stores across the country, with members reporting extraordinarily high close rates.

While online orders and curbside pickup have worked well, purchasing some products can be a complex decision, and there are customers who would prefer to demo the different models and talk to an expert. When you see a product in person, you can ask questions about sizing and installation and complicated features. Expertise and personal attention are usually all the assurance that is required to give the BAO customer the confidence they need to make a purchase on the spot.

Here’s how it works: Customers usually call to schedule appointments by phone, online or through the chat functions available on many websites. For online inquiries, employees usually call first to confirm the appointment and to go over safety measures and learn more about what the customer is interested in purchasing. This call goes a long way in prequalifying a prospect long before she or he comes to the store. It also helps to narrow down the number of products to show them, thus minimizing the time spent in the store.

One employee is assigned to the customer for the entire visit, accompanying the person around the showroom with disinfectant wipes at the ready to sanitize demo’d products before and after they are handled and to disinfect hands after credit card transactions.

Moreover, offering by appointment options is something the independent dealer can do that the box stores simply can’t execute on. The BAO option creates yet another differentiator between the independents and their big box competitors. The level of expertise and personal service offered by independents cannot be duplicated by a chain store.

BrandSource member Famous Tate Appliance & Bedding Centers in Tampa, Fla., has been setting up appointments for customers for several weeks now. According to principal Jason Horst, the practice has been working well and the company is pleased with the effectiveness of their BAO program. “It really evens out the flow of customers coming through the door and creates a controlled environment for our customers to get move directly towards their purchase intent,” Horst said.

Prior to their appointments, most BAO customers have already visited Famous Tate’s website, done their research, and may have also called or chatted online and to ask specific questions. “By the time they walk in the door they are usually ready to buy,” Horst said.  “They already transitioned from ‘shoppers’ to ‘buyers’ before they ever stepped in.”

Horst considers BAO more of a concierge service, rather than serving a typical walk-in customer. He estimates his close rate approaches 95 percent with BAO customers, making it a very efficient use of time and resources for the chain’s 11 locations.

At Denny’s Appliance, Debbie Rogge and her daughter Kayla Dewberry now see nearly all of their customers by appointment only.

BrandSource member Debbie Rogge of Denny’s Appliance in Menomonie, Wis., has long subscribed to the notion of setting appointments with shoppers. The majority of her customers have been making appointments to consult with her for at least the past three years. The practice started when she decided to close on Saturdays and only see customers that day by appointment. But, as of this past March, Denny’s announced on its website that it will be open exclusively by appointment only going forward.

“If a customer pokes his head in the door and we are not busy, we will speak to them. If not, we ask them to make an appointment and come back when we can devote our full attention to them,” Rogge said.

“The peace of mind that people have when they are your only focus is huge,” she added. “They relax and tune into your presentation completely.” Rogge schedules her appointments for one hour for a complete appliance package and 30 minutes for a laundry pair or single-item purchase.

“We are selling our undivided attention in conjunction with our knowledge and expertise,” she continued. “The boxes cannot deliver on that front.” Rogge estimates her close rate at around 98 percent for her appointment customers, and her business is trending up even through the pandemic.

“My goal has always been to deliver a different experience than they get at Menards or Home Depot,” she said. While it takes time to accustom customers to a new way of doing business, one of the most valuable lessons she has learned over the years is that “Your customers will do what you expect them to do. If you expect them to make an appointment, they will make an appointment.”

Another added benefit of BAO is that customers are less focused on the price and more focused on the benefits. “Price goes out the door when you are taking care of their needs,” Rogge said. “I can’t remember the last time that the price was an issue.”

Both Denny’s and Famous Tate expect the BAO trend to continue beyond the current crisis. And with closing rates as high as they have been experiencing, we would venture to agree that the practice is here to stay.

BrandSource is a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc.